Monday, August 15, 2011

"The Help" From My Family Stories

Last week, I read the popular book, "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. My plans are to see the film in the next several days.  Although the story is fiction, I do appreciate the fact that the African American women in this novel were depicted as having feelings, emotions, and a sense of self.

The stories were realistic, because many families have women who at one time worked and toiled as "The Help". And of course, historically until the mid 1800s--we were "the help" with no recourse, or ability to leave if the situation was not pleasant.

However, I began to think of stories that I heard as a child, how the women in the family worked an struggled to contribute to the family and to assist their husbands with supporting their families.

In different generations stories abound--some of the stories simply addressed the long tedious hours in the homes of others, while their own children were not always so privileged to have their mother close by. One of my ancestors chose not to work in the homes of others, and she chose to take in laundry instead.

As a genealogist, of course I first ran into "the help" when I was looking for my gr. grandmother Harriet Young.  I knew she and her mother Amanda Young, lived in Ripley Mississippi.  I went looking for Harriet, her sister Violet and Amanda, and found them---but with a different surname---Barr.  After learning that Gr. Grandma Amanda remarried after the Civil War--- so, I went looking for her daughters Harriet and Violet Young (or Barr)  Sure enough, I found them---the were living as "The Help" in the home of Dr. John Murray of Riley Mississippi.

Year: 1870; Census Place: Ripley, Tippah, Mississippi; Roll: M593_750; Page: 151A; Image: 309; Family History Library Film: 552249

Harriet and her sister Violette were living in the Murry home in 1870 and were enumerated with them. In the Civil War deposition for her mother Amanda Young Barr, she mentioned that she lived away from her family and was hired out as a young girl.

From Civil War Deposition of Harriet Martin, daughter of Amanda Young Barr.

The Years in Ripley after the Civil War

Home of Dr. John Murry, Ripley, Mississipppi.

Harriet's mother was Amanda Young, who was a slave of Wm. Tandy Young. In 1864, her husband, Berry, as well as her father and son left the Tandy Young estate, right behind the Union troops, and she never saw any of them ever again. He went to join the Union Army with so many young men who seized their freedom. She waited, but Berry never came back. He died someplace on an unknown battlefield.

When her husband never returned, she remarried a man who had earlier been enslaved by James Giles.  Pleasant was his name--Pleasant Barr. Pleas had his own story of sorrow. He was originally from So. Carolina, and he was taken away from his loved ones, and taken to Ripley Mississippi, and would never see his wife or children again. (The recent book 150 Years Later by Melvin Collier describes the fateful day when Pleas stood on the wagon as his family disappeared from his sight. He had been sold to a man called Giles and was now on his way to Mississippi.)

 Amanda married Pleas after the Civil War and together they made a life in Ripley, now that freedom had brought some order into their lives, at last. Pleasant Barr joined other men and helped to establish a church--St. Paul's Methodist Church which still stands to this day. (But sadly, Pleas never got to see his family anymore in So. Carolina, where he once had a wife and children. This was the fate of so many who were enslaved--families ripped apart forever, upon the decision and sometimes whim of the owner.) In spite of the separation, from family and life with Giles, Pleas did choose not to retain the name of Giles after freedom. Clearly his identity was with Barr name for that was the only tie he had left to his family left behind.  Pleas died in the 1880s and Amanda had to work out of her home once again.

In the 1890s, Amanda also began her efforts to try to obtain a pension from her first husband Berry, who had joined the Union Army.  She gave many depositions in that process.  From one of her depositions I learned that after Pleas died, she worked as a cook for Col. Faulkner. I also learned where she and husband Pleas Barr lived in those years in Ripley.

Home of Col. Falkner, Ripley Mississippi, where Amanda worked and "never missed a day."

Home of R.J. Thurmond, where Amanda also lived, presumably as"the help"

20th Century
Viola Wynn, Daughter of Harriet, Granddaughter of Amanda Young Barr

Harriet Young married Council Martin and they moved to Arkansas from Ripley.  Viola was Harriet's daughter, and she also had to work. She however, preferred not to do day's work in the homes of others, but she "took in" laundry where she washed and ironed clothes and then returned the fresh clothes back to the homes of her employers.  She wanted to avoid some of the situations in which others in Little Rock had to endure working in homes away from their own families. She would be the last in that line to work as a domestic worker.

A Pleasant Story

Susan Bass Clardy, of Phoenix Arizona

On a different side of the family, a distant cousin, Susan Bass Clardy worked as "The Help" for the Robb family of Phoenix, Arizona. She helped to raise Charles Robb, until he was 8 years old. Thankfully, her experience was a positive one, and she had very strong feelings for the Robbs, and this feeling was also shared by them towards her. She was treated with respect and dignity and she spoke with strong feelings about the Robb family continually.

A highlight for her occurred in 1967, when she was invited to be among 500 guests at the White House for the wedding of Lynda Byrd Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, to Charles R. Robb. The Robb family wanted her to be there, when their son Charles married, and she accepted their invitation to attend.  I was a child at the time, but I remember when our family got phone calls from cousins in Arizona, because cousin Susie was going to be on the evening news. Sure enough, she was interviewed and had her 5 minutes of fame on national television!

Since this story did get the attention of the media, even briefly, it was suggested that I see if she was mentioned in the black press. So, of course I had to check the one weekly publication that might mention her experience--- I decided to see if there was a mention in Jet Magazine.  For decades Jet has covered news events of interest to the black community. So, I pulled up some back issues on GoogleBooks, from 1967, and sure enough Cousin Susie was mentioned!  On the December 28 issue of Jet her trip to Washington was mentioned.

Jet Magazine, December 28, 1967, page 38

After reading The Help I am appreciative of the fact that the women were treated with dignity, and as persons with thoughts, feelings and lives.  So many domestic workers, cooks, maids, suffered many indignities and they had no choice but to endure them. Thankfully, those in my family did what they did to survive, and they worked hard at what they did so that generations that followed had lives with more choices.

I am glad that the stories about these women and what they  endured are being told.  They bear the shoulders upon whom so many of us now stand.

These were the women who raised a nation that sometimes did not respect them---but yet, they endured.

I am proud of all of my ancestors, especially those who were "The Help" at a time, when legally they had no other choice.

May more of their stories be told!